• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


The Internet, the Pope and the iPod Revisited

Complexity, optimism and pessimism.


January 26, 2014

In 2005, after teaching a weeklong course on Internet Law and the MiNE Program at Universita Cattolica del Sacre Cuore in Piacenza, Italy, I wrote an article entitled "The Internet, The Pope and The iPod."

Reading about Pope Francis’s remarks to the illuminati assembled at Davos reminded me of that otherwise long ago forgotten piece.

Rereading it, I was surprised by its tone of excited hopefulness. When I reflect on my current interests, I recognize a channeling of that excitement into nascent work on international inter-institutional team-taught courses that I have been discussing with my colleagues Susan Perry, of the Mellon Foundation (now retired), Michael Nanfito of NITLE and Elisabetta Morani of John Cabot University in Rome and AMICAL.

In the realm of Internet policy, I was also struck by how laden with political complexity and emotional disappointment these issues have become.  The thought of what is problematic, if not outright broken, between law and technology, market and social norms in the United States – my usual parade of horribles: intellectual property, network security, export control, electronic surveillance and communications law – overwhelms us.  The challenge of international Internet governance, such as the work of the Berkman Center’s Global Networking Initiative, deeply touches a hopeful vein.  Yet, between events such as the contretemps surrounding the Snowden disclosures (according to Sean Wilentz, writing recently in The New Republic, getting darker with post- Cold War intrigue by the moment) and the politics of Dubai Agreement, caution, to say the least, is warranted.

Back to Davos, I wondered to what purpose do the thirty-second billionaires, the nouveau riche of global society, hobnob with actors and bankers and intellectuals?  Preening plays no small role.  To the victors go the spoils, they have much to showcase.  Pope Francis, importantly through an African cleric interlocker, implored the illuminati to “remember the less fortunate.”  I don’t know what this means exactly.  Is it a nudge to charitable generosity?  Or is it a clarion call to global social policy in the information economy?

I have high ambitions for higher education to deploy technology in the name of international teaching, research and outreach; that higher education can play a leadership role in the positive aspects of the Internet remains of its most hope strategic plans for this century.  But those developments must run in tandem with global Internet policy.  Engagement remains a necessity on both fronts, with a dash of that old French aphorism, translated as “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.”


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